Grad Student’s Inventions win Grand Prize in Collegiate Inventors Competition


Timothy Lu  (Photo courtesy of the Lemelson-MIT Program)
Timothy Lu (Photo courtesy of the Lemelson-MIT Program)

Timothy Lu, a former graduate student in Professor James Collins’ laboratory, won the Grand Prize in the 2008 Collegiate Inventors Competition.

Lu won the $25,000 prize for his research developing innovative bacteriophages, viruses that attack bacteria, to help combat the growing problem of bacterial antibiotic resistance.

“This is the top national prize for young inventors,” said Collins, who, as Lu’s advisor, received a $5,000 award. “I encouraged Tim to think about what he could do with engineered phage as a means to attack bacteria, and he came up with several new ideas.  Impressively, Tim was able to execute on these innovative ideas and reduce them to practice.”

Lu engineered new genetic circuitry in viruses to invent two bacteria-killing bacteriophages. In one virus, he added genes that let the virus break through a bacterial biofilm –a potentially infectious slime layer of difficult-to-eradicate bacteria on surfaces and instruments that plagues hospitals and food-processing plants. In another, he encapsulated instructions in the virus to overproduce certain genes once it attacked bacteria that would make the bacteria more vulnerable to antibiotics.

“The winners of this year’s competition are truly impressive,” said Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office Jon Dudas. “The ingenuity of their work will help sustain America’s role as the world’s leader in technology and innovation.”

The National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation presented the awards at a Nov. 19 ceremony in Kansas City, Mo., as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week. The United States Patent and Trademark Office and the Abbot Fund sponsored the competition.

Lu’s work, done over several years in Collins’ laboratory, has resulted in several patent applications for the engineered bacteriophages, and work continues on the projects in Collins’ lab.

Collins’ laboratory is getting into the habit of producing inventors. In addition to Lu’s Grand Prize this year, another former graduate student, Tara Deans, was one of 11 finalists in last year’s competition, for her invention of a tunable genetic switch.

Lu, a student in the M.D./Ph.D. program at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, completed his Ph.D. in February 2008 and continues to work toward his M.D. after which he plans to pursue a career in research.